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The dedication of the new organ in 1979

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Saturday, December 1, 2018

Document of the Month - December 2018

From Christ Church Archives, D&C xiii.c.1/8

Detail of archive document D&C xiii. c. 1/8In 1979, after all sorts of trials and tribulations, a new organ, by Riegers of Austria, was installed and dedicated. It had been part of the dream of Dean Cuthbert Simpson who had left a bequest to Christ Church to provide for the choir. The new instrument was fitted into a screen and case which has been moved and altered on numerous occasions over the centuries.

We know that there was an organ at Christ Church, and at Cardinal College before that.  John Taverner, the celebrated composer and organist, was appointed in 1526 to play and to prepare the choir for the grand opening ceremonies for Wolsey’s new college.  From that time forward, college accounts record the stipends of an organist and a choir master – very often the same man.

From the earliest surviving disbursement books there are records of payments for the pricking out of musical texts, for psalm books and service books.  Then, in 1608, Thomas Dallam was paid £20 to make and supply a new organ and a carpenter called Keys made “the case abought the Organs”.  A carver and a gilder evidently beautified the joinery.

Thomas Dallam was the organ-maker of choice in the early seventeenth century.  His first major commission was for Queen Elizabeth who had requested he make and deliver an organ to the Sultan in Constantinople.  He went on to build organs for St George’s Windsor, Norwich cathedral, King’s College in Cambridge, St John’s Oxford, Eton College, and the Scottish Chapel Royal.

The next reference to an organ in the accounts is the purchase of a new and expensive double organ and case in 1624, also by Dallam. The organ itself cost £260 and there were additional expenses of its carriage to Oxford, the organ-builder’s time, the making and decorating of the ringing loft above it, and the staircase to the ringing loft. The organ stood on its screen under the chancel arch. But, after the defeat and execution of Charles I in 1649, the organs were ordered to be removed, not to be seen again until after the Restoration in 1660.

There was definitely an organ there immediately – possibly one of the old ones reinstated, but it was not for twenty years that Bernard Smith, known as ‘Father Smith’, was commissioned to build something more fitting.  Smith was organ-maker to the King and worked across the country installing new instruments, and building the organ cases, in colleges, cathedrals, royal chapels, and fashionable London churches.

Every newly-arrived organist requested alterations to the organ and over the centuries its case and pipes were cleaned and regilded on numerous occasions. Today, Father Smith’s 1680s case still survives in part, standing on part of the screen from the 1630s, moved and elaborated in the 1870s by George Gilbert Scott, but containing the 1979 organ.